This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail on January 16, 2017.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to cancel his plans to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos so he can undertake a cross-country tour and engage directly with Canadians is a symptom of a much larger and more troubling trend where it has become increasingly fashionable for political leaders to frame public-policy decisions in terms of their potential impact on “ordinary,” “real” or “average” Canadians.
These terms, which are now at the heart of debates about everything from health-care funding to the benefits of globalization, have come to be used almost interchangeably with the equally popular “middle class.” To the extent that many Canadians consider themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be part of the middle class, these labels are intended to convey a sense of inclusiveness.
Yet the opposite is true. As we have seen in the United States and Britain, when these types of generic terms are used to describe large groups, they are generally defined on the basis of who they exclude: the so-called elites.
These terms are, in fact, inherently divisive. Just as few of us would self-identify as being “abnormal,” our characteristic Canadian modesty prevents us from thinking we are particularly exceptional. If we are not among those frequently maligned “elites,” we must therefore, be part of some “middle-class” majority. (Even the math holds up, as we’re told “elites” are only the top 1 per cent.)
The problem with vague terms like these is that they invite people to fill in the blanks with their own biases about who fits into each group – and we’ve seen the consequences that has had in other countries. Canadians should not be urged to divide themselves on the basis of income, education, ethnicity, religion or region. To do so would be to unravel our rich multicultural tapestry by pulling on loose threads.
We don’t want Canadians to be inherently distrustful of experts, to presume that a person is less ethical because they have a higher or lower net worth, or to believe that those with global outlooks aren’t patriotic. Any proliferation of populist labels risks creating an “us versus them” conflict within the country, something that can be exploited by those looking for an easy way to galvanize and mobilize a political base.
Some may suggest I am being alarmist, but I have spent the better part of my career in the field of communications, and in my professional experience our choice of language matters a great deal. It has also been my personal experience. As an immigrant and a Muslim, I have witnessed firsthand how quickly the word “different” becomes “foreign,” and how easily “foreign” can become “un-Canadian.”
At a certain point, assigning some meaning to arbitrary or artificial terms inevitably becomes a question of defining values. That is where things get complicated and where the real fissures can emerge. Canada’s 150-year story has many chapters in which divisions between people defined the politics of an era. Some of our worst mistakes have been made by governments in attempts to satisfy one group over another.
Without question, governments must consider the very different realities in which Canadians live when they develop policy res-ponses to pressing issues – but that is about technical implementation. What governments must avoid doing is using the levers of policy to divide Canadians on the basis of their different circumstances, as opposed to building a broad consensus based on shared values and interests.
Moreover, governments must avoid making decisions – such as whether to attend a global conference with the world’s most powerful economic stakeholders – based solely on the perceived optics of those decisions.
In these uncertain times, we cannot afford to make mistakes or miss opportunities. We need to seize every advantage we have, and that means ignoring those who call for us to marginalize or vilify others. Instead of targeting a particular class of Canadian – whether upper, lower or middle – let’s avoid entirely the temptation to engage in any type of class distinctions or, worse still, to inflame class warfare.
When the Fathers of Confederation created our country 150 years ago, they sought to unite us in common cause. Let us invoke that same spirit in this anniversary year by uniting Canadians, not dividing them.